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Controlling pollutants and algae toxins in real time

Mariabox project will develop automatic sensors for analyzing pollutants and algae toxins in the sea, as well as the systems of data acquisition and transmission. The goal is to have a real time control on the water quality.


Badia dels Alfacs, Ebro Delta (Spain), where the sensors will be validate as there are many mussels farms (at the right side on the picture). Image: Jordi Camp /ICM-CSIC. Scientists at the Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM) of the CSIC participate in the European project Mariabox (“MARINE environmental in situ Assessment and monitoring tool BOX”). The project, funded by the European Seventh Framework Program (FP7), aims to develop  automatic sensors for analyzing pollutants and algae toxins in the sea. The devices will be instal·led on buoys in several points along the European coast. They will be designed to provide a quicker and  cheaper sampling which, combined with the real time monitoring, will guarantee the improvement of current monitoring systems.

Nowadays, to control the quality of the sea water, samples are routinely taken and sent to the laboratory to be analyzed. The process can take several days. But, as Esther Garcés explains, “there is an urgent need of improving the control of water in situ with systems that can offer quickly permanent and real-time information”.  

For that reason it is necessary to have fast analytical methodologies to obtain this data about pollution. But the sensors commercially available nowadays are too big and expensive to be used as a general rule. The goal of the Mariabox project is therefore to develop new and miniaturized sensors which can take samples on a regular basis and  make the analysis in real-time. This should reduce the cost of data acquisition, which is a main priority in order to apply the new policies such as the Framework Directive of Water and the most recent Marine Strategy.  

The project is led by the CNE Research and Innovation Center (Cyprus) and 7 research groups and 6 companies from 6 countries (Cypus, Spain, Ireland, United Kingdom, Italy and Norway) will be involved. It has a total budget is 5,1 M€.   

The sensors developed in Mariabox will be portable devices which will be possible to adapt into buoys, platforms or ships as “floating labs”. In the next 4 years, the project partners will work to develop and to prove the validity of the system in real conditions.

The sensors will analyze the usual physical and chemical parameters as well as 5 man-made pollutants (napthalenes, several types of dioxins and pesticides) and 4 types of toxins produced by marine and freshwater algae (saxitoxin and analogues, microcystins and analogues,  azaspiracid and domoic acid). All these pollutants and toxins can affect the environment and human health.

The sensors will analyze the usual physical and chemical parameters as well as napthalenes, dioxins, pesticides and toxins produced by algae

The device will be totally autonomous. It will count on a source of energy, the reagents needed for the analysis, the sensors and the data acquisition system, the software and the technology for data transmission, a web platform and a mobile app. The devices will be able to make simultaneous analysis in different selected coastal areas, especially areas with aquaculture activities.

The team of Coastal Biological Processes Research group, led by Esther Garcés at the ICM-CSIC, will test the sensors in a real environment. The chosen place is the Spanish Badia dels Alfacs, Ebro Delta, a bay in south Catalonia. As Esther Garcés points out, “it is a very suitable place because it has a high aquiculture activity. As a matter of fact, there is already a weekly control of the water which will  allow us to have a reference in order to compare the results obtained by the new sensors. With Mariabox we will develop a system which will make it possible to analyze the water so often that it will be virtually real-time control”.